She’s been away from Derry more than 50 years - but there’s no denying Maureen Coyle’s roots.
Mixed with an American twang and despite the fact that she mostly speaks Spanish while ministering in Latin American, Sister Maureen’s Derry accent hasn’t left her.
As she celebrates her Golden Jubilee this week Sister Maureen looks back fondly on a picture taken of her at Dublin airport in 1961 as she set off for Rome to make her first profession.
Gone is the tight white wimple around her neck and these days Sister Maureen’s attire is a much more comfortable brown skirt and white top.
It’s been 50 years of blessings for the Derry nun who counts among her highlights getting free tickets to the Masters Golf Tournament when she lived in Augusta.
But there’s nothing quite like coming back to Derry.
“I’ve just been to the General Chapter in Rome,” she explains. “So I got the chance to come home as well and I’ve had a walk on the new Peace Bridge.”
“This week marks the 50th anniversary of my profession so I decided to celebrate.”
The celebrations took place on Friday night with Mass at our Lady of Lourdes at Steelstown followed by a party in the Delacroix.
Born in Derry during the war, Maureen Coyle was the third child of Margaret Sweeney and John Coyle from Creggan Road.
“There were ten of us in the family,” she explains. “But my brother Ciaran died when he was in his 40s of motor neurone disease.
“I went to Rosemount School and afterwards worked doing book-keeping at my Uncle Paddy’s drapery shop in Lewis Street. Lewis Street isn’t there any more which I think is sad.”
At the age of 17 Maureen entered religious life with the Missionary Franciscan of the Immaculate Conception order in Mullingar, and was later sent to Rome.
“I always wanted to be a missionary,” she said. “I had that calling.I went to Rome to train and on to East Boston and to Rockfort, Illinois. I won’t forget the first day I arrived because I was sent straight to the school but I was confused about the American money and ended up getting mixed up with the lunches.”
From there Sister Maureen moved to Augusta, Georgia, where she stayed until 1983.
“I have lovely memories of Augusta,” she said. “The people were good to us and would give us tickets to the Masters. Sometimes I would bake Irish bread and the priests would come down to us and watch the Irish football on television.”
However it was in the early 1980s that Sister Maureen felt the call to go to South America.
First stop was Bolivia, and Sister Maureen who at that stage had learned Spanish was hoping to be able to converse with the people there.
“The women there only spoke Amaymara, not Spanish” she said. “But we got there. The people have always been very accepting of the sisters. If you ask them, they can remember every sister that was ever here.
“I worked with the children and taught in the high school and did parish work in the mountains.
“The Lord always took care of us. We had a nice climate and while January, February and March were wet, the rest of the year it was beautiful.”
In 1998, Sister Maureen saw at first hand the dangers of South America’s torrential global weather in the guise of the devastating El Nino.
13 years ago, Piura, a northern desert area of Peru, was devastated by the El Nino torrential rains which caused severe flooding in the Shanty towns. Many of the houses were washed away by the floods. At that time, the people of Derry rallied around to raise money to help Sister Maureen and her fellow nuns keep a soup kitchen going.
In 1990 Sister Maureen was moved to Peru for formation training.
“I was then elected leader of the congregation in Latin America and came down to live in Piura,” she said.
In recent years the sisters opened a Shekina (an aramaic word meaning Integrated Health Centre) which caters for the spiritual, physical and psychological development of people in Consuelo de Velasco.
“At the Shekina we see that the whole person is taken care of spiritually, physically and psychologically.
“The women come to sew. They make bags from plastic bags and crochet and make jewellery. These can then be sold on. The shekina is about health and the protection against disease.
“In our second floor we have a retreat centre and an apartment for those affected by domestic violence. Piura is one of the worst areas for this.”
As the years go on, the nuns in Piura are facing a new battle because of the issue of human trafficking.
“We recently had a woman who told her story to the media,” explained Sister Maureen. “She was from the Amazon and believed she was coming to Latin America to become a waitress. What happened is that she was placed in a bar for prostitution. During her time there she gave birth to a child that was taken away from her.”
Sister Maureen will stay in Derry until the end of the month, however she says she is missing home in Peru where they would be celebrating the feast of Saint Claire.
“The highlights of my last 50 years are the way the Latin American circle has progressed which has strengthened our unity,” she said.